How bad is it to read other people's mail through the envelope?

Some times of course, you just can’t help noticing that an envelope says “Final Demand Letter” with a lawyer’s return address. The whole point of that was to embarrass the recipient.

But I’ve also discovered that if you xerox an envelope with a high contrast setting that the letter inside will show up like the envelope was clear. Unless it has that privacy patterned envelope like checks come in.

Today I saw a co-worker’s envelope coming from “___ Drug Testing”. The thought flashed through my head he might be in rehab. So my curiosity overcame me. But he is only testing a sleep apnea drug. I was relieved for him and then ashamed for myself.

But can you quantify the badness of it? If I were a Catholic, would I have to say two Hail Mary’s or get mineself to a nunnery?

Would you keep the information to yourself, or spread it around and lead others into temptation, thus compounding your sin to include scandal?

I don’t see how this is ethically any worse than opening someone’s mail and reading it. It’s just easier. The only difference is that tampering is not evident.

Argh. I meant ethically any better. I didn’t mean to imply that opening mail was OK.

I think it’s the special measures you’re taking to be able to read the mail which crosses the line from “ok” to “not ok”. Everyone can read a postcard, with no special equipment. Therefore people treat them as having no privacy. Letters are another matter. If a sender puts mail in an envelope and it doesn’t show through under normal circumstances then they expect the content to be private. Using this technique is the modern equivalent to steaming open a letter, reading it, and then re-sealing the envelope. It’s undetectable, but it’s still violating the implicit trust people place in their private correspondence.

Think about how you would feel if someone did that to a sensitive/personal letter you had sent, and that will probably give you a good idea about if it is a practice you should continue.


Follow up note:

Ironicly, I realized that by reading the letter I didn’t end up thinking the guy had a drug problem, which better for both of us.

But then I asked him, “I couldn’t help but see you got a letter from a drug testing company- are you in rehab or something, if you don’t mind my asking.”

He then told me about the study. And surprised me with this: “I had the letter sent to my work address because I figured someone would ask about it and I could say it once. If the letter went home my girlfriend would become my sleeping coach and I would have to give and get sleep progress reports every night. I just don’t need that right now. I’m too tired to deal with it.”

Um, I always thought messing with the mail was a federal felony. Am I wrong?

See, that’s the part that crosses the line. You could help but see it, and I am surprised that you would admit it to someone. And I’m sorry for him that he feels like he will be asked about it at work.

I agree that it’s the taking special measures to read it that makes it unethical. If you can just read it through the envelope, I mean, it’s not nice but I think there’s a reasonable expectation there. But to go and photocopy it to see? I mean, how did you even find out you can do that?

Times like this is when the Golden Rule comes in so handy. I’m going to assume that you would not appreciate it if one of your co-workers went to such measures to read your mail. So why would you assume it’s okay for you to do it to someone else? I mean, I don’t think you should be strung up or anything, but I do think it’s something wrong.

It’s been too long since I practiced Catholocism to say how many Hail Mary’s this would warrant. :wink:

I don’t know what the Catholic Church says about reading other people’s mail, but Judaism says it’s wrong (at least Ashkenazic Judaism does, don’t know if Sephardim have a similar explicit ruling). Rabbi Gershom, around the year 1000, said that reading other people’s mail is wrong. It was considered a serious sin- if you did read other people’s mail, the punishment was cherem, which is sort of a cross between shunning and excommunication. We don’t do that any more, but we still think it’s a very bad thing to do to read other people’s mail.

There’s another argument against it in Judaism. In the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.” Would you like it if your co-workers were snooping in your mail to find out if you have a drug problem? My guess is that you wouldn’t, so you shouldn’t do it to them.

As far as I know, it doesn’t matter in Judaism how you read someone else’s mail, but it’s wrong no matter how you do it. You could steal their mail (of course, that would also involve the sin of theft), use a photocopier as you describe, or even read a letter someone left lying around where you could see it. It’s just plain wrong, even if you don’t go to extraordinary measures to do it.

Incidentally, Judaism says you commit another serious sin if you did find out something negative about someone (by reading their mail, or some other way) and gossip about it with others- the sin of lashon ha-ra. Some authorities say there is no forgiveness possible for this sin, because it’s not possible to undo the damage you’ve done to someone’s reputation by gossiping. Even if the gossip is true, if the person you tell it to doesn’t absolutely need to know, it’s still a sin.

I assume, According to Pliny, that you won’t mind if I rifle through your desk drawers? I promise I’ll put everything back just the way it was.

I don’t see any difference between that, and what you did. Except I asked permission first.

I don’t know about US law, but I’d suspect it is. As an Australia Post employee, I’m under oath regarding the “sanctity of the mails”, which is rather a quaint term, but I take it seriously, and it’s burned into my brain to a point that it flows into my off-duty life, and I wouldn’t look through an envelope even if it’s addressed to a spouse (there was a thread on this recently). At work, if I tamper with the mail, I will be instantly dismissed and the matter will be referred to the police for prosecution. Technically, “tampering with the mails” includes reading postcards.

So for me, what is mentioned in the OP is about equal to going to somebody’s house and rummaging through their files. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not normally so uptight, but with mail, my job has made me that way.

The only circumstance in which I could countenance even trying to read someone else’s mail:

  1. It was immediately and unambiguously apparent to you that there were serious negative consequences for you, and the letter was open (not sealed). For example, the previous tenant at my address was served notice, not in an envelope, that bailiffs would be stopping by to break into his (my) appartment and seize a bunch of his (my) stuff for failing to pay his (his) debts. At that point, I took immediate action to ensure that my (my) stuff would not be seized and that the aforesaid bailiffs were aware that he had moved away from his (my) appartment. I regard that as ethically justified.

  2. …Actually, I can’t think of any other cases right now.

Emphasis added.


@According to Pliny

I would have no qualms, thanks for the Xerox tip, I tend to stick things under a 100w lightbulb which is a bit unsatisfactory.

Rifling a bosses desk can be instructive, especially if you get the keys to his ‘secure’ filing cabinet - similarly snooping computers.

Oddly my ethics bar me from searching a woman’s handbag, unless she has lost something and expressly agrees to me showing her how to conduct a methodical search (method dump the whole lot in a pile on a bed and divide into separate piles).

In your case your motives sound benign, and your cow-orker sounds as if he was relieved to be able to talk to someone about it.

To me there is nothing wrong with keeping ones eyes and ears open, but I agree with Anne Neville that using such information maliciously is out of order, unless one is dealing with someone pernicious.

I guess you missed part of the OP: The information that it was from a drug testing company was on the outside of the envelope in the return address. He apparently knew what their envelope looked like from prior contacts, so he would assume people would wonder what was up based on that.
And all our mail just sits in a department in basket waiting to be sifted through, so we all see each other’s envelopes.

Oh poor naive baby! People do rummage through my desk drawers all the time. The premise is usually looking for a stapler or scissors, but the real motive is my candy stash. If people didn’t do this, then they wouldn’t put locks on desks. Such is life in the big city.

There used to be a spray that you could use to ‘wet’ the mail, making it easier to read it through the envelope. The wetting substance evaporated very fast, and didn’t leave any ‘water like’ stains. It may have been freon based.

Glad to see that technology has improved so that we can spy on each other without depleting the ozone layer :wink:

Dang, I’m glad I don’t work for your employer. At all the places I’ve worked, people wouldn’t dream of opening up another’s desk with out permission, unless it was some sort of emergancy. If you see the one as ok, I suppose I can see where you would find the other ok. As for me, stay out of my desk and my mail.